In August 2020 the Woodland Trust shortlisted a sycamore in Armstrong Park, known as the ‘Shoe Tree’, for its English ‘Tree of the Year’. Our representative in the competition certainly isn’t as ancient as many of the other contenders, although that didn’t stop an anonymous wit constructing a fictional history for it, as this panel, which mysteriously appeared one night in 2012, shows.
Definitely not true but the tree is certainly growing in an area of the park with a very interesting actual history, some of which may provide an alternative narrative for why it now sprouts footwear.
Estate plans, estimated to date from around 1800, shows this particular part of Heaton, which was owned by the Ridley family, covered in trees and described as ‘plantations’. On the 1st edition Ordnance Survey map, the area is labelled ‘Bulman’s Wood’. We know that by the first half of the 19th century, it was owned by Armorer Donkin, the solicitor who in the 1830s employed William Armstrong as a clerk and became almost a father figure to him. On Donkin’s death in 1851, Armstrong inherited much of the land that he in turn gifted to the citizens of Newcastle, including the park which bears his name and houses the Shoe Tree.
But from the 1830s there was a house in the wooded area adjacent to where the Shoe Tree stands. It can be seen on the first edition OS map below, the square just below the old windmill. A very substantial stone-built single storey house, some 20 metres squared, stood here. This house was occupied for over twenty years by Joseph Sewell, a man who deserves to be much better known in Heaton than he is.
Joseph’s early life remain something of a mystery but we do know he was born c1777 in Northumberland. By 1804 he had become the owner of the already substantial St Anthony’s Pottery less than three miles from Heaton. The road now known as Pottery Bank led from the factory to the works’ own staithes on the River Tyne.
According to a modern reference book, ‘Although in recent years, Maling has received more attention than [other north-east potteries], the highest quality ware was made by the St Peter’s and St Anthony’s potteries.’
Under Sewell’s stewardship, the pottery went from strength to strength. It did not, for the most part, compete in the English market with the Staffordshire firms, which had advantages in terms of transport links by road. Instead, it took advantage of its position on the Tyne, with links to Europe, particularly Northern Europe.
Mr T T Stephenson, former works manager at St Anthony’s, interviewed by C T Maling in 1864, said:
‘I cannot go back to when it first began as a small white and common brown ware works but about 1803 or 1804, it was taken over by the Sewells and gradually extended by them for home trade until 1814 or 1815, when a considerable addition was made to manufacture entirely for exportation, chiefly CC or cream coloured, painted or blue printed [wares] and when I came to the works in 1819, the description of works then produced [was] say about five glost ovens and two or three enamel kilns per week, say CC and best cream colour to imitate Wedgwood’s tableware, then made in considerable quantities for Holland and other continental countries.’
As well as in local collections, there seem to be particularly large numbers of Sewell pieces in museums in Denmark which suggests this was a big market for Sewell’s pottery.
From 1819, the firm was known as Sewell and Donkin. Armorer Donkin, Jesmond and Heaton landowner, solicitor and businessman and soon to be Joseph Sewell’s landlord, had become a partner in the firm.
We know that there were ‘dwelling houses’ on the site of the factory and a newspaper of 9 June 1834 reported that ‘The lightning struck the house of Mr Sewell at St. Anthonys and broke a quantity of glass’. Whether this event was a factor, we don’t know but the following year, Sewell moved to a new house on Donkin’s land in Heaton.
Ironically, the advent of the railways from the 1830s, pioneered in the north-east, made things more difficult for Tyneside potteries as they enabled fashionable Staffordshire names to access the local market directly rather than have to transport goods by road and sea via London. Consequently their ceramics became relatively cheaper and more popular in this part of England.
The north-east firms were also affected by changes in shipping. Until this point, they had enjoyed access to cheap raw materials that were used as ballast on wooden collier ships making return journeys from Europe and London. But from the 1830s larger iron-clad ships came into use. They made fewer journeys and increasingly used water as ballast. The result was that as Staffordshire pottery became more affordable, local ware became comparatively expensive. Nevertheless St Anthony’s pottery continued to thrive by concentrating on cheaper mass-produced items. This plan is from the 1850s.
In 1851, the year in which Armorer Donkin died, the pottery name reverted and became Sewell and Company.
Sewell, the man
We know that Sewell diversified. He was manager and shareholder for a time at the Newcastle Broad and Crown Glass Company, the shareholder who recommended him being Armorer Donkin.
That Joseph had some philanthropic leanings is shown by charitable donations including one from ‘Messrs Sewell and Donkin’ in 1815 to a relief fund set up after the Heaton Colliery disaster and in 1848 to another following a tragedy at Cullercoats when seven fishermen drowned.
There are also references in the press to scholars such as those of the Ballast Hills and St Lawrence Sunday schools being taken up the Ouseburn to the ‘plantation of Joseph Sewell Esq’ including some mentions of tea and spice buns!
His gardener also gets several mentions for having won prizes for horticultural prowess.
Joseph died on 10 June 1858 at his home in Heaton at the age of 81.
At the time Sir William Armstrong gifted the land now known as Armstrong Park to the people of Newcastle in 1879, the tenant of the house was a Mr Glover. He may well have been the last occupant. Joseph Sewell’s house was soon used as a tearoom or refreshment rooms. Later, possibly about 1882, a kiosk seems to have been built onto the side.
Yvonne Shannon’s dad, who is 85, remembers going to the refreshment rooms for ice cream but he can’t recall anything about the big house. Heaton History Group member, Ken Stainton, remembers it too. He told us that an elderly man ‘quite a nice guy’ called Mr Salkeld ran the refreshment rooms when he was young. Ken remembers the name because he went to school with Norman Salkeld, one of the proprietor’s grandsons. But Ken’s memories are from the second world war: ‘Sweets were rationed. I don’t think they had cake. I just remember orange juice.’ The identity of the writer of the letter accompanying the first photo below would seem to confirm Ken’s recollections.
What Ken remembers most vividly, however, is the ‘dark, dingy room at the back’ that was used as changing facilities for another great Heaton institution, Heaton Harriers. Again this was during world war two, in which many of the Harriers served and some lost their lives.
It’s fitting that Heaton’s athletes were among the last known users of the space before, in 1955, the refreshment rooms were demolished. Is it a coincidence that a tree close to the site has, for the last thirty or more years, been the final resting place for worn trainers and other footwear belonging to Heaton residents past and present?
And although a number of truly historic buildings, such as ‘King John’s Palace’ and Heaton Windmill, survive just metres away, it’s the Shoe Tree, which particularly seems to capture the imagination of local people. It’s that which has a Heaton Park Road cafe named in its honour and has inspired local designers and artists.
But next time you pass, look up at the trainers and think about all the runners who set off from that spot, some of which were to lose their lives soon afterwards, and give a thought also to the entrepreneur, industrialist and philanthropist, Joseph Sewell, whose house footprint is beneath your feet.
Cast your vote for the Woodland Trust’s Tree of the Year here.
Researched and written by Yvonne Shannon of Friends of Heaton and Armstrong Park and Friends of Jesmond Dene, with additional material by Chris Jackson, Heaton History Group. Shoe Tree designs depicted by Colin Hagan.
‘St Anthony’s Pottery, Newcastle upon Tyne: Joseph Sewell’s book of designs’ / edited by Clarice and Harold Blakey on behalf of the Northern Ceramic Society and Tyne & Wear Museums, 1993
‘The Development of the Glass Industry on the Rivers Tyne and Wear 1700-1900’ / by Catherine Ross; Newcastle University thesis, 1982
‘William Armstrong: magician of the north’ / by Henrietta Heald; Northumbria Press, 2010.
British Newspaper Archive and newspaper cuttings
Ordnance Survey maps 1st and 2nd edition
Ridley collection, Northumberland Archives
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